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Vayechi(Genesis 47:28-50:26)

Father and Son

The narrative of this week's parsha seems to pose a problem when considered in light of a halacha recorded in the book of Devarim:

If a man has two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son is hers who was hated; Then it shall be, when he makes his sons inherit that which he has, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, who is indeed the firstborn; But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he has; for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his. (Devarim 21:15-17)

Yaakov's complicated home life seems very relevant to this halacha: Yaakov's first wife, Leah, was wed under duress, and could be called the "hated" wife, at least when compared to Rachel. Leah certainly felt this way, but she was not alone: God Himself assessed the complicated set of interpersonal relationships in similar fashion. Reuven is born as a means of bridging the emotional gaps:

And when God saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name Reuven; for she said, 'Surely God has seen my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me. (Bereishit 29:31-32)

Yet as Yaakov's sons stand around his deathbed to hear his last wishes, Reuven is addressed first, and Yaakov leaves no doubt that he is fully aware of Reuven's rights - and responsibilities - as firstborn:

Reuven, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power; Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father's bed; then you defiled it; he went up to my couch. (Bereishit 49:3-4)

According to tradition, Reuven, as firstborn, should have received three precious gifts: a double portion of Yaakov's inheritance, kingship, and priesthood.(1) In fact, Reuven receives none of these: The kingship is bestowed upon Yehudah, and eventually, the priesthood is given to Levi. Yosef, who was the firstborn son of the "beloved" wife Rachel, received the double portion, in seeming contradiction of the law recorded in Devarim.

And now your two sons, Efraim and Menashe, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you to Egypt, are mine; as Reuven and Shimon, they shall be mine. (Bereishit 48:5)

By elevating Efraim and Menashe to the level of Yosef's brothers, Yaakov in effect gives the double portion to Yosef. These two grandsons of Yaakov, sons of Yosef, become tribes in their own right and each will one day receive their own portion in the Land of Israel, a clear indication that Yosef -and not Reuven - has received the double portion.(2)

We might say that the contradiction we have raised is a non-issue: The halacha in question was recorded many years after the death of Yaakov, and it is unfair to judge the actions of those who lived before the Revelation at Sinai by Torah-law standards. Nonetheless, the sensitive reader is uncomfortable with this seeming transgression, no matter how theoretical. Yaakov is, after all, one of our Patriarchs, a spiritual hero and role model. Is it possible that he was insensitive to the social and spiritual truths that lay at the heart of the halacha?(3) The commandment that protects the rights of the firstborn is not the type of law which is impenetrable by logic; a spiritually sensitive man like Yaakov should have been more judicious. We would like to say that this was an oversight by Yaakov, but the very language he uses rules out that possibility: There is an obvious linguistic connection between the verses that describe the birth of Reuven and the wording of Yaakov's final blessing to his firstborn son, and the words of the law dictating that the double portion must be given to the firstborn.

A second, seemingly unrelated question emerges, again, only when we compare this parsha with a later section of text: In next week's parsha, the first in the book of Shmot, a textual anomaly arises:

So Yosef died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. (Bereishit 50:26)

The Book of Bereishit comes to an end with the death of Yosef, and the Book of Shmot begins with Yosef's death, recorded for the second time:

And Yosef died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. (Shmot 1:6)

While this may seem like a simple literary device, to "catch the readers up" and remind them where we are up to,(4) it should be noted that fundamentally the Book of Bereishit is a book of the Avot and Imahot, the patriarchs and matriarchs, while the Book of Shmot is about the Children of Israel.(5) The death of all 12 tribes could have been mentioned in Bereishit, closing the door on that generation, or, alternatively, all twelve sons could have died in the beginning of Shmot. Only Yosef "dies twice."(6)

While this observation about Yosef's death may seem like a question, it actually contains the answer for our first question regarding the wresting of the birthright from Reuven in favor of Yosef. As we shall see, the answer may be understood on many levels, some of which are in the realm of mystical study, and others which are accessible to all.

Yosef was fundamentally different from his brothers; he was not truly a part of their generation. Yosef was a "throwback" to a previous generation. The simple, chronological understanding of this phenomenon comes as no radical interpretation: though two people's lives intersect chronologically, one belongs to the previous generation, while the other may be a part of the next generation. Yosef's case was somewhat more profound: His age placed him firmly in the generation of Yaakov's sons, yet Yosef's essence was related to the previous generation. He was a rare individual who had the ability to transcend his age and transform himself into something else. In fact, most of the people who came into contact with him were struck by this quality. We may summarize this particular attribute in terms of Yosef's place as a "hinge" between two generations. Yosef was not part of a new generation, he was an extension of Yaakov:

These are the generations of Yaakov Yosef, being seventeen years old... (Bereishit 37:2)

The Torah describes Yosef's unique position in various ways. First, we are told that Yaakov loved Yosef because he was his ben zekunim:

Now Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his children, because he was his ben zekunim; and he made him a coat of many colors. (Bereishit 37:3)

This term is often translated as "the child of his old age", though this would be an unlikely explanation on two accounts: A number of Yosef's brothers are very close in age, being that there were four women bearing children during the same time period.(7) Furthermore, Yosef had a much younger brother, Binyamin, who truly was the child of Yaakov's old age. Targum Unkolus translates zekunim as wise. Often, age is associated with wisdom; thus, Yosef is a "ben zekunim,"(8) a wise child.(9) The Midrash takes up this theme as well, explaining that all that Yaakov received from his father by tradition was passed on to Yosef. Here there was no generation gap.(10)

Pharaoh's estimation of Yosef's unique abilities seems very similar:

And he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, avrech; and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Bereishit 41:43)

The term used to describe Pharaoh's new right-hand man is somewhat obscure; Unkolus says that the word avrech means "father of the king." (11) Rashi cites this teaching and adds that we have a tradition(12) that the word means 'a father (av) in wisdom, despite tender (rach) (13) in years,' one whose wisdom transcends their years.(14)

Yosef himself seems to refer to this quality and this relationship with Pharaoh when he tells his brothers that God sent him to Egypt and placed him as a "father" to Pharaoh.

So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. (Bereishit 45:8)

When it is Yosef's turn to receive his father's blessing Yaakov says:

Yosef is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall. The archers fiercely attacked him, and shot at him, and hated him. But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; from there is the shepherd, the stone of Israel. (Bereishit 49:22-24)

Yosef is referred to as even yisrael which is literally translated as the "stone of Israel." Unkolus(15) understands the word even (stone) as an amalgam(16) of av and ben, father and son: Yosef is not only a son, he is also a father. While this is far from remarkable - many people in the history of the world have been both fathers and sons - Yaakov's comments do much to identify this unique quality Yosef possessed. Yosef was a son and a father; he had the status of one of the twelve tribes, yet he also had the status of one of the patriarchs. He is an av and a ben. This is the reason Yosef's death, and none of the other brothers', is recorded in Bereishit together with the other patriarchs; his status was elevated to that of his father Yaakov, his grandfather Yitzchak and his great-grandfather Avraham. Nonetheless, he is also mentioned in Shmot with the other brothers; he is also a son of Yaakov, a member of the collective known as the Children of Yisrael.

When does Yosef achieve this status? When his father bestows upon him a double portion he is thrust above the others of his generation, and his children achieve the same status as the other brothers. That was the blessing of Yaakov, but the message runs much deeper than mere portions and wealth, or even inheritance in the Land of Israel. The Midrash expresses the idea in a teaching in which each of the four species is "matched" with one of the patriarchs. This presents a problem, as there are only three patriarchs. The Midrash brings Yosef to the rescue:

Another exposition of the text, "the fruit of the hadar tree": Hadar symbolizes Avraham, whom the Holy One, blessed be He, honored (hiddero) with good old age; as it says, "And Avraham was old, getting on in days" (Bereishit 24:1), and it is written, "And honor (vehadarta) the face of the old man (Vayikra 19, 32). "Branches (kappot) of palm trees" symbolizes Yitzchak who had been tied (kafut) and bound upon the altar. "And boughs of thick trees" symbolizes Yaakov; just as the myrtle is crowded with leaves so was Yaakov crowded with children. "And willows of the brook" symbolizes Yosef; as the willow wilts before the other three species, so Yosef died before his brethren. (Vayikra Rabbah 30:10)

It seems strange to consider Yosef the "fourth wheel", for Yosef was part of the next generation; nonetheless, this is exactly what this Midrash does. The three patriarchs have Yosef added to create a quartet.(17)

This teaching has implications regarding a deep mystical teaching known as the chariot - or merkava. The merkava was part of an awesome vision beheld by the Prophet Yehezkel. This merkava is best described as a spiritual vehicle, a means of connecting our physical world and ourselves with the spiritual world that lies beyond our sensory grasp. In a sense, the merkava is a spiritual elevator which enables man to connect with Heaven. The rabbis teach that the patriarchs are themselves, through their actions and teachings, a merkava:

"And God went up from him, etc." (Bereishit 35:13). R. Shimon b. Lakish said: The Patriarchs are [God's] chariot, for it says, 'And God went up from upon Avraham" (Bereishit 27, 22); "And God went up from upon him; And, behold, the Almighty stood above him" (ib. 28, 13)... (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 82:6)

A chariot has four wheels; the mystical chariot of Yechezkel is no exception. When aligned with the three avot, one wheel is missing; that fourth wheel(18) is Yosef.(19)

Interestingly, the first biblical character to ride in a chariot is Yosef:

And he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, avrech; and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Bereishit 41:43)

There is another, deeper point which connects Yosef to the chariot of Yechezkel. In describing his vision, Yechezkel recounts the images he saw: On one of the four sides was an elusive image, described in the first chapter as an ox, and in the tenth chapter as a keruv - or cherub.

As for the likeness of their faces, the four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side; and the four had the face of an ox on the left side; the four also had the face of an eagle. (Yechezkel 1:10)

And everyone had four faces; the first face was the face of a keruv, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. And the keruvim were raised. This is the living creature that I saw by the Kevar River. Yechezkel 10:14-15

The image of an ox is used elsewhere to describe Yosef:

And of Yosef he said, 'Blessed of God be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that couches beneath, And for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon, and for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the lasting hills, And for the precious things of the earth and its fullness, and for the good will of him who lived in the bush; let the blessing come upon the head of Yosef, and upon the top of the head of him who was separated from his brothers. As the firstborn of his ox, grandeur is his, and his horns are like the horns of a wild ox; with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth; and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Menashe. (Devarim 33:13-17)

Let us look more carefully at Yechezkel's prophecy: The place at which Yechezkel has this vision is the River Kevar. In this vision, one aspect seems to shift between the image of an ox and a keruv. So many of the salient points are bound together by the etymology of these Hebrew words, that we must stop and take notice:

The letters bet kaf resh spell BeChoR, which means firstborn. Yosef is the fourth side of the merkava; the root of the word merkava is RaCaB. The site of Yechezkel's vision of the merkava was KeVaR, which is comprised of these same letters. Yosef rode in a chariot, and was called avrech. Yosef is represented by the fourth side which is either an ox or a keruv another word composed of these same three letters.

Earlier we saw various opinions of the meaning of the word avrech. The Ibn Ezra is of the opinion that this singular word is extrapolated from the word berech, which means knee: By Pharaoh's order, everyone was commanded to bow on their knees(20) at the sight of Yosef and his chariot.(21) Berech is composed of these same three letters.(22) These same three letters seem to have great significance for Yaakov, as well: Throughout Yaakov's life the main issues that motivate and animate his life story were the issues of bechora (firstborn) and bracha (blessings), both of which are composed of these same letters. Yaakov's life story reaches its culmination in Yosef; as an extension of his father, Yosef receives the bechora, and the choicest bracha.

The nature of these three critical letters, which seem to bind together the narrative of Yaakov and Yosef, encapsulates a very powerful message: These three letters are all "seconds". As we know, Hebrew letters(23) have numerical values which are often a key to otherwise unnoticed connections between concepts. The letter bet is the second of the single digits (aleph bet); caf is the second of the tens, and resh is the second of the hundreds. The numerical value of these three letters is 222, making the numerical value of all the words which are composed of these letters identical. While we might have assumed that the word for firstborn, bechor, should have been composed of the first of each series of numbers (i.e., aleph yud koof, totaling 111), we find instead a profound idea: In many societies, firstborn sons wielded unlimited power under the rule of primogeniture. Judaism rejects the philosophical underpinnings of this system, for Judaism teaches that the only creation ex nihilo (creation of matter from nothingness) is God's creation of the world. After the creation of Adam and Eve, all living things are extensions of previous generations. Thus, the "firstborn" is not first, he is an extension of the previous generation, hence the numerical value of BeChoR is 222.(24) The firstborn should see himself as an extension of his parents; indeed, the double portion assured the firstborn is a sort of compensation for the tremendous responsibility placed on the shoulders of the eldest son to care for the younger siblings(25) as a quasi-parent.(26)

No one in Tanach embraces this responsibility as well as Yosef did. Yosef is the quintessential firstborn. Despite his brothers' treatment of him, he provides for all their needs for over seventy years, giving them shelter, food and jobs. Yosef is not just a father for Pharaoh, he is a father for all(27) of Egypt and the surrounding territories. He is the Mashbir Hagadol, (28) especially for his brothers.(29)

What, then, of Yaakov's "abandonment" of the Torah law that mandates a double portion for the firstborn? Prior to the Revelation at Sinai, the Patriarchs were not bound by commandments per se. What set them apart, what made them spiritual giants worthy of fathering God's chosen people, was their ability to discern and live by the deep spiritual meaning of the Torah.(30) Their spiritual sensitivity to the Will of God enabled them to live according to the same philosophical principles that would later be codified in the system of Torah law. On that plane, Yosef - not Reuven - was the true firstborn. When Reuven had an opportunity to save his younger brothers from sin, and at the same time save Yosef from death, he was only partially successful.(31) Later, in a desperate attempt to convince Yaakov to allow Binyamin to join him on a dangerous mission to Egypt, Reuven assures Yaakov that if any harm befalls Binyamin, Yaakov "can kill two of my sons."(32) This pathetic plea indicates that not only was Reuven not an effective parent for his younger siblings, he was guilty of gross malpractice in terms of his own children.

Yosef, on the other hand, is the true "father." His intelligence, his compassion, his dignity and his unwavering fidelity made him the object of admiration and emulation, trust and dependence for Potifar, Pharaoh, and, eventually, for his own family. He was, from a very early age, a ben zekunim, a young man far wiser than his tender years, an avrech, and an Even Yisrael. He was as strong as an ox, and as beautiful and innocent as a keruv. His unique combination of attributes made him both father and son. For this reason, his death is included, along with the other patriarchs, in the Book of Bereishit, as an extension of Yaakov, as well as in the Book of Shmot, along with the other sons of Yaakov.

And when the Book of Shmot begins with the death of all the brothers, Yosef, the brother who was once excluded from the family, is once again counted. He is counted twice, for he was both a son and a father.

 

NOTES

1. For example see Rabbenu Bechaya Bereishit 49:3.

2. See Rashi and Rabbenu Bachaya Bereishit 48:5.

3. See Eitz Hadaat Tov Parshat Vayechi, which records teachings of the Arizal. Here he raises the problem; we will return to his solution below.

4. See Igra D'kala page 177a.

5. See the introduction of the Ramban to the Book of Shmot.

6. See Ohr HaChaim Shmot 1:6, who reveals that there is a deep mystical secret in the repetition of Yosef's death. He cites a passage recorded in the spiritual diary of Rav Yosef Karo, Magid Meisharim, a document which records mystical revelations shared by an angel.

7. Ramban Bereishit 37:3.

8. The Sfat Emet notices that it says he was a wise child to him, that Yaakov saw this quality; the brothers did not see it, they saw him as a na'ar a frivolous child.

9. Ramban Bereishit 37:3.

10. Rashi based on Midrash Rabbah 84:8, explains the meaning of the wisdom referred to by Unkolus, that Yaakov passed on the traditions studied from Shem and Ever to Yosef.

11. Unkolus Bereishit 41:43.

12. Sifri Devraim piska aleph.

13. The Megaleh Amukot says that rach is equal to 220 in gematria, and the slavery which will be endured will be for the 22 years that Yosef was separated from his father multiplied by ten brothers.

14. Rashi Bereishit 41:43.

15. Unkolus Bereishit 49:42.

16. See Rashi Bereishit 49:42.

17. This idea that the three Avot are sometimes seen as three and sometimes seen as four is represented by the Tefilin. The Tefilin worn on the head has the Hebrew letter shin engraved on each side, but on one side the shin has 3 arms, while on the other side it has four. The Shla Hakadosh believes that this is two manifestations of the Avot, alone - where there are three, or with Yosef, where there would be four.

18. See Derashot Ri Ibn Shuab for the first day of Sukot, who reveals the connection between the four species and the Chariot.

19. See Megaleh Amukot Parshat Vayechi.

20. See the Arizal in Etz Hadaat Parshat Bereishit.

21. Ibn Ezra Bereishit 41:43.

22. See Megaleh Amukot Parshat Vetchanan section 93.

23. If you have any knowledge of Hebrew I urge you to look a version of this essay with Hebrew sources and notes. This chapter is challenging if read without the Hebrew words. See http://rabbiarikahn.com/.

24. See Be'er Mayim Chaim Shmot chapter 4.

25. See Rav Yitzchak Hutner Mamari Pachad Yitzchak Sukkot chapter 54 especially sections 12,14.

26. Heard from Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik.

27. The twelve tribes are associated with the twelve months significantly Yosef is associated with the month of Av, see Rav Zadok of Lublin in Pri Zadik Ekev section 2.

28. See Bereishit 42:6.

29. See Noam Elimelech Parshat Shmot.

30. The Ohr Hachaim (Bereishit 49:3) maintains that the forefathers only kept laws that he found useful, or more precisely would not keep lows that they found an impediment to them. The Shem MiShmuel understands that Yaakov fulfilled the commandments - even if he didn't quite perform them. He explains that commandments have bodies and souls, and Avraham was attuned to the souls and therefore didn't need the "body" of the physical performance. The Noam Elimelech Parshat Dvarim, states that Avraham had certainly achieved the spiritual perfection of someone who had performed all the commandments. For more on this concept see http://arikahn.blogspot.com/2008/10/lech-lcha-5769.html especially footnotes 7-10.

31. See Bereishit 37:21,22,29.

32. Bereishit 42:37.

 

Published: December 28, 2009

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